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Friday, 26 May 2017

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn is one of those stories that I only really heard of after I started venturing out onto the Internet a bit more, and even then I seemed to find mostly artwork of the eponymous unicorn, with surprisingly little about the actual story. So when I got round to actually reading it, it had become a weird kind of amorphous non-entity: apparently a really beloved classic, but with little actual substance that I could see and figure out why people liked it.

It is a regular eternally spring day for the unicorn, when she hears a message that she can't bring herself to ignore: that she is the last of her kind in the world. Venturing from the safety of her forest, she sets out to find out what happened to others like her. Joining her on her journey are Schmendrick, the world's worst magician, and Molly Grue, an indomitable spinster. But the three of them may not be enough to combat the terrible Red Bull that stalks the land of the miserly King Haggard.
What I'm about to say probably won't make much sense. Because I had a copy of the deluxe edition, my edition of The Last Unicorn came with a lot of additional material, including an introduction and an interview that hammer in one point about the writing process for this book: it was a complete chore and it took years before Beagle could look at it and admit to himself that it was any good. And while I did like what I read, I think that there is a part of that struggle that shows through the writing. The Last Unicorn is a truly beautiful book at several points, but as a whole it kind of left me emotionally cold. I don't know what it was, but despite enjoying it, The Last Unicorn probably won't be high on my list of books to re-read any time soon. It's like watching a dancer who is technically flawless, but who doesn't enjoy performing anymore and hits her cues more out of obligation than anything else. The parts that I liked were the points where the fairy tale stuff was juxtaposed by the moments of crushing reality: the spider crying in the night having discovered that it can't weave the moon in her web, or Molly asking why the unicorn only turns up in her life after her youth and loveliness have already left. The more traditionally fantasy elements, regardless of how self-aware they are, seem to be there more to fit the story structure. It is really well written though, so I would be interested to see some more of Beagle's work, perhaps something that hadn't been such a struggle for him.

Thoroughly beautiful at times, but I can't honestly say that The Last Unicorn did much for me emotionally. There's nothing specifically wrong with the novel, but this just wasn't really for me. Pleasant enough and probably enough to warrant reading other works by this author, but this work seemed a bit too beholden to obligating fairy tale tropes to really stretch out and become something truly wonderful. I am probably in a minority here though. 3.5/5

Next review: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Signing off,

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

On a sidenote: Project Skylark

Not a review this time, but an appeal to whatever regular readership I have out there. I have a friend in the real world whose book is currently on Inkshares. This site is kind of like Kickstarter but specifically for publishing. At the moment, her manuscript is in the pre-order stage, and if she gets enough people to order copies then it will be properly published. She's been working on it for a long while now, so if you like the sound of the book pitch, then please consider ordering a copy. So, without further ado, may I introduce Project Skylark by Jennifer Hart.

Lost in Space meets Dune.
The crew of a marooned ship struggle to survive a hostile alien environment, whilst discovering that every decision they make will have far reaching consequences for the future of humanity. 
So, if you interested in Project Skylark then please click the enclosed link. The page includes a sample chapter to whet your appetite, and some very reasonably priced pre-order options.

Thanks for reading!

Signing off,

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Returning to the Humble Bundle, I settled on another science-fiction title in the form of Spin. Much like my last foray into science-fiction, there wasn't much that I could glean from the blurb beyond "the stars are gone", but I was mostly optimistic. My last book entered with more or less a blank slate outlook was a resounding success, and I was hoping for perhaps another sleeper hit.

Spin follows Tyler Dupree and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, in the fallout of a massive cosmic event that starts when all the stars disappear from the sky. It soon becomes apparent that there is some kind of unnatural barrier surrounding the Earth, and that it is affecting more than just the appearance of the night sky. As more is found out about the mechanics of the Spin, Tyler finds himself torn between his two friends: while Jason throws himself into researching the Spin and why it was put there, Diane retreats into increasingly unorthodox religious movements in order to find meaning in a world that seems to be facing the end.
I found myself liking Spin, although not necessarily for my normal reasons. This is the first book that looks so closely at the world-building aspect of writing that hasn't left me entirely cold. Possibly this is because for all the understandable fascination that Wilson has for the actual scientific aspects of what would go into a phenomenon like the Spin, he balances it with how the science affects society at large. For the most part, there doesn't seem to be much reaction at all unless there's something big and showy happening in the sky. It's a slow creep of realisation instead of constant massive panic. I also liked that even when the narrative is dealing with some seriously out-there cults, there isn't the kind of anti-religious bullshit that you sometimes get with science-fiction dealing with potentially world-ending consequences. Even when the results of their actions turn out poorly, the people within these sects aren't depicted as crazed loons, just people who are scared and need somewhere to turn for answers. It's a surprisingly balanced look that is sorely welcome.
If I were to criticise anything about Spin, it would be the main character and narrator, Tyler. While there's nothing that I can think of that is actively aggravating or off-putting about him, neither can I think of anything really interesting about him either. The only thing that really stands out about him is his unhealthy obsession with the Lawton twins, and honestly it just makes him come across as embarrassingly needy. While not a huge issue, it does make the stakes a bit lower than they otherwise might be with a more engaging protagonist.

A really interesting look at a society abruptly reminded of their fragile place in the universe and how different parts of humanity look to try and cope. The main character is remarkable only for his unhealthy obsession with his two friends, but he's not enough of an issue to make Spin unreadable. Definitely one for readers who like solid world-building. 4/5

Next review: The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Signing off,

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

After a long while of reading things that were in no way Pratchett-in-origin, I returned to the Discworld series and my husband rejoiced. Right up until I started incessantly quoting it at him whenever a funny line came up. Which was quite frequently.

Guards! Guards! follows the misadventures of Ankh-Morpork's Night Watch, a much-maligned group attempting to keep order in a city where theft and assassination are well-regarded career options. Whilst they try to rein in a rather enthusiastic new recruit, a book about summoning dragons is stolen from the Unseen University and things start getting a whole lot more scaly and fire-breathing.
I'm not going to beat about the bush. I loved Guards! Guards! from start to finish. I wouldn't have necessarily thought that the kind of grizzled noir detective tropes would work with more traditional maiden-eating style dragons, but somehow it does gel quite nicely. And it leads to some great character introductions for the Watch. I have been told that Vimes gets even better, but even at this early stage I really liked the weirdness that is the hardboiled alcoholic detective within a fantasy setting, so I can only look forward to more of him. Carrot is the 6 foot dwarf (by adoption) who is the first genuine volunteer to the Watch that anyone can actually remember, and his overly enthusiastic rookie status worked fantastically against the infinitely more cynical and self-preserving veterans. Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs are somewhat less memorable than the others at the moment, but their generally pathetic and cowardly natures make for some great comedic moments. And then, be still my beating heart, there's Sybil. I thought she was the best thing about the book, bar none. An Amazonian mountain of a woman, who has more authority in her than that of the entire Watch combined and dedicates her spare time to breeding the most ridiculous specimens of dragon that I have ever seen in fiction. She is marvellous and I want to take her home. Also, it was nice to see Patrician Veternari start to come into his own. He is probably the only one who doesn't seem to be phased by anything that the plot decides to throw at him, and he manages to have one of the funniest scenes in the book whilst at the same time having probably the grimmest scene. He's just one of those characters.

Definitely my favourite Discworld novel thus far. I would say that of all the ones that I read of the series thus far, Guards! Guards! strikes me as the novel that is most beginner-friendly, possibly drawing with Mort. So really, there isn't much excuse not to pick this up if you haven't already. 5/5

Next review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Signing off,

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I'll admit, when I got the Humble ebook Bundle I didn't have any idea of what I was getting into with Shards of Honor. I'd vaguely heard of the Vorkosigan Saga and generally they seemed good things, but I'd never really looked into the series enough to get a solid idea of what it was all about. I figured from the blurb that it would be military science-fiction of some sort, but not much beyond that. More or less completely blind going in. Nice.

Shards of Honor follows Cordelia Naismith, the captain of a scientific survey crew who becomes the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, a man of sinister reputation and the former commander of the soldiers who attacked her crew. But despite the initial mistrust, the two find themselves growing unexpectedly attracted to one another, and must face the possibility of being forever parted when their planets threaten to go to war.
I honestly didn't think I was going to like Shards of Honor when I first started reading it, as the narrative kind of throws the reader in at the deep end. I hadn't gotten further than maybe the first couple of pages in and it's throwing around new terms for planets and space-age weaponry with gay abandon. More than a little off-putting at first, not unlike trying to get your head around Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange for the first time. But like the aforementioned Nadsat, your head does manage to wrap itself around the more unusual terms with surprisingly little extra information.
Having adjusted myself to being thrust into the plot with a lot more speed than I am accustomed to, I realised that despite my initial reservations I was really enjoying myself. While the easiest way to describe the novel is military science-fiction with romance, Shards of Honor takes those base elements and does some really interesting things with them. So, first the military bit. I'm actually kind of surprised at how little fighting is actually shown directly. Possibly this is due to the main character being more or less a non-combatant, but the parts of war that are shown most often can be boiled down to internal politics and large scale battle strategy. Considering how much I love some politics and back-stabbing, I was totally in my element. Additionally, it was good to see that the sides aren't easily delineated into purely good or malign. While the invading Barrayaran army is mostly in the wrong, it has a mix of Caligula types versus more noble types like Vorkosigan. Similarly, while there are perfectly reasonable people on the side of Escobar and Beta Colony like Cordelia, there are a surprising amount of people unwilling to look beyond basic propaganda messages. And no-one gets out of war unscathed, even or perhaps especially those who got what they wanted from the conflict. I am definitely looking forward to reading more about this world.
Second, the romance. I was pleasantly surprised that the novel focused on a middle age romance. While I'm a sucker for most kinds of romance, I don't think I've really seen much in the genre where the people involved aren't in their mid-twenties or younger (aside from the supernatural stuff, but even then no-one thinks or looks over thirty). It was refreshing to see the romance unfold with more maturity and a more thoughtful pace. It's established pretty quickly that both Cordelia and Aral have been badly burned by their romantic attachments in the past, so their connection is less outwardly passionate, but no less powerful for it.

A bit of a slow burner at the start, but well worth the short period of confusion at the beginning. Shards of Honor is probably quite a good introduction to military science-fiction, if my reaction was anything to go by. I would definitely look into getting more of the Vorkosigan Saga as a result anyway. 4.5/5

Next review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,